What in the World Is the Cultural Web?

Core Value two: Relevance

This week I’m going to focus on how we can better understand the people God has placed around us, and therefore, better communicate and connect the gospel message to them. This has a big term associated with it called “contextualization” which essentially is tailoring the presentation of the gospel to the wider cultural context in order to achieve greater understanding and greater acceptance of the message. In short, the context does matter and the better you know the thoughts, fears, challenges, hopes, aspirations, values, history, and objections of the people you are trying to reach the better you can understand them and the more effectively you can communicate with them. Jesus knew his audience. Paul knew his audience – as evidenced by what he said in I Corinthians 1: 22, “Jews demand miraculous signs (a culture that valued power) and Greeks look for wisdom (a culture whose baseline narrative was wisdom and knowledge).” Paul communicated the gospel differently to each group.

So how do you better understand the people in a community? One of the best articles I’ve seen on this important subject was written by JR Woodward, the author of Creating Missional Culture and the co-founder of the Ecclesia Network. The entire article can be found here http://thev3movement.org/2013/11/exegeting-a-neighborhood-within-the-city/. I encourage you to read it.

Essentially, Woodward says that in it’s most basic form, culture includes six elements – language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions and ethics. These elements interrelate to create “culture” and make up what he calls the “cultural web.” This cultural web gives us insight into the people we are trying to reach because culture shapes people.

Woodward simplifies this concept even further to four basic questions anyone can ask to gain a fairly good understanding of a particular community. Here are the four questions with some added thoughts on our local community here in North Austin:

  1. Narrative: What story is the community calling people to embody? In the case of North Austin, there are several important story lines developing. The first is the large number of people who are flocking to Austin to “live the good life.” 150 people a day move to Austin and our county is supposed to grow by almost 900,000 people in the next 20 years. You can see this storyline communicated in various places such as the City of Leander website and Leander Chamber of Commerce that identifies “quality of life” as the main draw to the area. A second storyline is the need for rootedness and community because of the large number of people moving to Austin. These are two open doors for the gospel.
  2. Rituals: What are the core practices that people engage in which shape their identity and sense of mission in life? A couple of the things I’ve identified in North Austin are the huge commitment to family and family activities and the huge participation in sports and recreation. This was very similar to the communities surrounding our last church (Traders Point Christian Church) where the community highly valued family, children’s enrichment, and sports and recreation. We were able to strategically connect the gospel to people through these avenues.
  3. Institutions: What are the primary institutions that are shaping the community, and how are they shaping people’s identity and destiny? This area is dominated by the tech and business industry (specifically Dell computer which has its headquarters about 10 minutes from our target plant area). People value innovation, professionalism, success, and creativity but it is also a very competitive business culture where people feel the need to always “keep up with the Jones.” It can be a fast-paced and driven culture where people’s identities are rooted in personal, professional, and material success. The gospel speaks to these issues right? OK, just checking.
  4. Ethics: How does the community define success? What do they value? Interestingly, I was on the City of Cedar Park website this week and noticed their core values. They were: Community, Service, Innovation, Professionalism, Integrity, Leadership, and Fiscal Responsibility. These are the things people value so to plant a church that expresses itself in isolation, self-absorbtion, unprofessionalism, lacking integrity, lacking relevance to leaders, and fiscally irresponsible would probably be a big miss.

Well that’s it for relevance. I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts and they’ve been relevant to you in your own ministry and place in life. 🙂 Thanks again for your friendship and support. Next week I’ll pick up and talk about our core value of community and authentic relationships.

Dave and April